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Gateway Nature Preserve offers great birding on the Catawba

On this day, a willet sighting proved elusive.
On this day, a willet sighting proved elusive. Phil Fowler

I spent a couple of hours last weekend poking around the Wilkinson Boulevard bridge where it crosses the Catawba River from Mecklenburg County into Gaston County. I had dim hopes of relocating a willet, a large locally rare shorebird that had been discovered there two days previously. As is often the case with birds that are in full migration, the willet had moved on. I did enjoy other nice birds at the site, though.

There is an abandoned weigh station on the south side of the road just before crossing the river. I parked there and entered the Gateway Nature Preserve, which looks down on the river. Drought has caused a very nice mud and sand bar to form that has been attractive to all kinds of water birds for about a month.

As soon as I got out of the car an immature little blue heron and an adult great blue heron flushed from a shallow pool adjacent to the bar. A male wood duck in dull eclipse plumage paddled away and clambered onto the bar, already occupied by a dozen killdeer and a spotted sandpiper.

Overhead, three ospreys gave their shrill calls back and forth to each other. I am guessing this was a family group that had been established close by this season. A raucous dry rattling call revealed a kingfisher flying across the water, being harassed by an immature Cooper’s hawk. That was an ambitious endeavor for the hawk, which eventually gave up the chase.

I was hoping for some black or Caspian terns flying downriver but I never did see any. They are easier to see at the larger waters of lakes Wylie or Norman, but they have been seen on the river too. I did see three great egrets winging toward South Carolina, a nice sight in the bright morning sun.

There were a few land birds too. A summer tanager called from the thick tree canopy and a hairy woodpecker gave its high-pitched rapid rattle of a call, then flew across the river. A Northern parula sang a half-hearted song, trying to recapture the vigor of spring, perhaps.

It was nice to check out this rarely birded spot. It affords a great view of the river where such areas are generally hard to come by for the general public.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com